Greek A to Ω – B (Beta) is for Βύρων or Byron and the Elgin Marbles

After four years of waiting I was actually going to see the new Acropolis Museum.  It was originally planned to be completed in 2004 to accompany the symbolic return of the Olympic Games to their spiritual Athenian home but construction setbacks and various outbreaks of controversy along the way meant that it did not finally open to an expectant public until June 2009.

I purchased tickets on line and arrived at my allocated visit time of ten o’clock.

I had feared that the place would be crowded and uncomfortable but this was not the case at all and without the lines of visitors that I had anticipated it was easy to cruise effortlessly past the ticket desks and into the museum.  I had a gigantic sense of anticipation because I was genuinely looking forward to seeing this magnificent replacement for the hopelessly inadequate museum at the top of the Acropolis that I had visited before and which it had replaced.

I have to say that anticipation was mixed with some trepidation because having followed the saga of the open wound debate about the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles I wondered how I was going to feel because the long awaited €130m Acropolis Museum is a modern glass and concrete building at the foot of the ancient Acropolis and home to sculptures from the golden age of Athenian history but unlike any other museum in the world this one has been designed to exhibit something it doesn’t own and can’t yet exhibit but all of Greece hopes that it will be the catalyst for the return of the disputed Marbles from the British Museum in London.

Outside the museum and in the cavernous entrance hall there were glass floors with sub-level views of the excavations that were discovered during the construction of the building and contributed to the delays and then there was a steady incline cruising through seven centuries of history and impressive and well set out displays along a generously wide gallery that provided sufficient space for everyone to stop and enjoy the exhibits without feeling hurried or under pressure to rush through this timeline of ancient treasures.

Moving on to the second floor there are two galleries that I have to say I did not find so well set out and involved a rambling walk through a succession of exhibits that was not helped by the absence of a simple floor plan to help guide the visitor through and having finished with the second floor I then had to double back to get to the third and the Parthenon Gallery skilfully avoiding the café terrace and the inevitable gift shop along the way to make sure I wasn’t parted from my cash.

After an hour passing through various centuries of ancient Greece I finally arrived at the top floor Gallery, which is designed to eventually hold and display all of the Parthenon sculptures but for the time being has only about half of the originals.  The remainder are plaster casts made from (and controversially paid for by the Greek Museum) of the remaining treasures temporarily remaining in London.  It is truly impressive and with the Acropolis Hill and the Parthenon looming up outside I can only explain it rather inadequately as a very memorable experience.

The top floor is designed to provide a full 360º panoramic of the building and how the sculptures would have looked when they were originally commissioned and sculptured in the fifth century BC.

I really liked the Museum but what I didn’t care for especially was the demonising of Lord Elgin and the unnecessary nationalist, provocative and belligerent anti-English sentiment attached to the explanations and the video commentary. I considered that rather offensive as an English visitor and it made me feel slightly uncomfortable and unwelcome.

The descriptions of Elgin as a looter and a pirate seemed especially designed to stimulate a reaction from visitors from the United States who were encouraged to gasp in awe that a British Lord could have done such malicious and terrible things.  I know that a lot of what should be in Athens is in London but let’s not forget that material from the Parthenon was dispersed both before and after Elgin’s time and the remainder of the surviving sculptures that are not in Athens are in museums in various locations across Europe and there are also parts of it in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the Vatican Museums in Rome, the National Museum, Copenhagen, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, the University Museum, Würzburg and the Glyptothek in Munich all of which seemed to have been conveniently ignored.

As I wandered around I considered the debate and tried to balance the two radically opposing views.  There are many factors to take into consideration. We do not know if Elgin’s actions were legal at the time but he had certainly obtained permission to work on the Acropolis from the Ottoman authorities, then in control of Athens, and it seems that he had a genuine interest in archaeology and the preservation of the past.

What shouldn’t be forgotten is that when Elgin removed the sculptures from the Parthenon, the building was in a very sorry state indeed and this is expediently omitted from the commentary and the otherwise excellent interpretation.   In the early twentieth century there was some inappropriate restoration work that has subsequently been proved to be damaging so perhaps Elgin saved the Marbles from the deadly fate of ignorant restoration and we should thank him for that?

Although we think of it primarily as a pagan temple, its history as church and mosque was an even longer one, and no less distinguished. It was, as one British traveller put it in the mid seventeenth century, ‘the finest mosque in the world’ but all that changed in 1687 when, during fighting between Venetians and Turks, a Venetian cannonball hit the building, which was inappropriately being used as a temporary gunpowder store and approximately three hundred women and children were amongst those killed as the building itself was blown apart and destroyed. By 1800 a small replacement mosque had been erected inside the shell, while the surviving fabric and sculpture was suffering the predictable fate of many ancient ruins and falling further into a state of unloved disrepair.

Elgin might be the villain in the opinion of modern Greeks but what the Acropolis museum conveniently fails to mention is that at the time he removed the sculptures Turks and Athenians were using it as a convenient quarry and a great deal of the original sculptures and the basic building blocks of the temple itself were being reused for new local housing or simply being ground down for mortar.  It is all very well getting precious about it now but whatever Elgin’s motives were for removing the sculptures there is no doubt at all that he saved them from possible even worse damage and without his intervention we might not be even having the ‘Elgin Marbles’ debate at all.

My personal opinion?  Well, I believe that we should thank the British Museum for having looked after them for the last two hundred years while all this was going on and then the Marbles should be returned and I believe that one day they will because as the poet and Grecophile, Lord Byron wrote and with whom I leave the last word:

‘Dull is the eye that will not weep to see                                                                            Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed                                                    By British hands, which it had best behoved                                                                   To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.                                                                     Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,                                                       And once again thy hapless bosom gored,                                                                        And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!


28 responses to “Greek A to Ω – B (Beta) is for Βύρων or Byron and the Elgin Marbles

  1. Well that was certainly worth waiting for! I’ve got my “to do” list by my side and was determined to make progress but simply had to take time out to read this.
    I’m quite ignorant on the subject matter so enjoyed your thoughts Andrew. Hopefully I’ll next be in Athens when the Marbles are in situ.


  2. It’s easy to demonise someone for taking stuff, but if Elgin hadn’t taken the Marbles I suspect that they’d be lost to us now.
    Should Britain give them back? Well I’m sure that the British Museum has loads of stuff they could show in their place so why not.


  3. A nice piece, Andrew.
    But one minor correction.
    You English always seem to think that the word “English” is synonymous with the word “British”. It ain’t. And this really is NOT mere semantics.
    Thus it is that your sentence “The descriptions of Elgin as a looter and a pirate seemed especially designed to stimulate a reaction from visitors from the United States who were encouraged to gasp in awe that an Englishmen could have done such malicious and terrible things”, won’t quite wash.
    Why not? For the Seventh Earl of Elgin was a proud SCOT.
    It is Scots being called “Englishmen” that is grist to the mill for such canny folk as Alex Salmond.
    Hope you are in fine fettle, Andrew.
    Nice to see you when you visited my house for lunch the other day. We can discuss this the next time we have lunch.
    When I strolled around the Acropolis 11 years ago last month, I confess that I did not see the missing marbles as teeth missing from an otherwise healthy mouth. Rather, it is the “teeth missing” that help give the whole thing its character! Before long there will be well-meaning folk looking to fit artificial arms on to the Venus de Milo !!
    And immediately the VdM will lose its USP.
    Okay, so the Parthenon will still stand supreme over the city whatever happens in the future, but without having the whipping-boy of Lord Elgin, it will thus miss that chance for us all to hiss at this fellow who the Greeks portray as a barbarian, but who was in reality the very antithesis of the man they think he was.
    But, that said, I have no objection to them going back, so long as Greece first reimburses the vast sums it has thieved* from the EC taxpayers.
    * A strong word? Yes of course. But the right one, methinks. I refer of course to Greek governments’ lies re the true nature of their economy when signing up both to entry in 1981 and to the introduction of the euro in 2001.
    Very unfortunate on the Greek people who are great. (George Papavgeris is one of my favourite people in the world!)
    But sorry folks: you elected your own governments.
    Dai Woosnam

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Dai

      Your conditions for the return of the Marbles made me chuckle – even more onerous than Eurogroup’s conditions for release of the bailout funding!

      British/English correction made – thanks for pointing it out!



  4. Hi,
    A very interesting read, I enjoyed the post.


  5. Well written Andrew as always,nicely touching the “hot potato” and without being provoking.I am with you my friend.
    Besides,behind every dark cloud there is always a silver lining …


    • Thanks Doda,
      The Venetians removed a lion from Delos and the Romans a column from the Temple of Zeus. I don’t think it really matters that we cannot agree an instant ownership solution so long as we can all be certain that they are being cared for by whoever has temporary responsibility for them. I am confident that they will be returned eventually.


  6. Well, I guess it was worth the wait. Looks amazing. Your photos are too.


  7. Thanks for your typically magnanimous response to my feeble words, Andrew.
    As usual, I want to breathe one or two of my words back in!
    But before I do that, let me say that even though they have voted-in successive numbers of charlatans (and should therefore realise that some of the responsibility for this economic chaos lies with them), I have no quarrel with the Greek people protesting in the streets. I sincerely wish them well. If only us Brits could show the same amount of spunk and protest in OUR streets to throw out our thieving parliamentarians.
    But back to the Elgin Marbles. No doubt, I am a philistine par excellence, but when I saw them in that room in the British Museum, I have to tell you I was underwhelmed. They did not detain me for more than five minutes.
    I sincerely believe that the Greeks would be mad to get them back. Like someone once said “the second-worst thing is not to get your heart’s desire: the worst thing is to actually get it”, If and when they get them back, it will be like Loch Ness without its monster. At the moment, the Parthenon has a great “monster”, in the wrongly maligned Lord Elgin!
    And realise that once you start emptying museums of artefacts that come from other countries, you may as well close most of them down! They will be so denuded of stock!
    Mind you, closing some of them down may be no bad thing: many of them are sleep-inducing. But then, I am a philistine (of sorts, at least).
    But I am joined by my fellow-countryman Dylan Thomas who once opined “All museums should be IN a museum”.
    And now for a truly sacrilegious remark from me: I respectfully submit that that visiting the Parthenon with or without its missing Marbles is not really a markedly better experience than climbing up to the Penshaw Monument.*
    Most Brits – outside those living in Tyne and Wear – have never HEARD of it, let alone CLIMBED up to it. Yes of course it is a folly: but WHAT a folly! Unforgettable. Its view is every bit the equal of that from the Acropolis – albeit decidedly different (!) – and it can actually be seen from an even farther distance away. The Marquess of Londonderry knew what he was doing when he sited this copy of the Temple of Hephaestus where he did, that is for sure.
    2008-Feb-15 - Penshaw Monument at Night
    This next pic gives you a way of seeing how it commands its surroundings: this is from 7+ miles away, but it can be seen from even farther than that:
    When I said the view was the equal to that from the Acropolis, the inside of my cheek might have been slightly bruised by my tongue. But that is just another way of me saying that I reckon that the view from the Parthenon is not even the best view over ATHENS.
    The best view is the view I got was when I took the funicular railway to the top of Lycabettus and the Church of St George. What a view!
    And believe it or not, you are not just looking down on Athens as a whole, but also on the Acropolis itself!

    Will sign off now. Hope you will have a return game of squash with me soon,
    Oh, I nearly forgot. Something I wanted to add to yesterday’s contribution from me.
    Strike the words “artificial arms” re the Venus de Milo. Instead imagine that miraculously the ORIGINAL arms were found and a restoration job was done.
    Guess what? It would lose half its appeal … overnight.
    Gosh, I used to love Ms Mercouri, but every time I used to hear her banging on about the Greeks getting the Marbles back, I used to think “Dear Melina, I salute the fact that you are a brave and highly-intelligent soul, but you really have not thought this THROUGH … glorious chain-smoking, supremely sensual woman that you are!”
    Kindest, as ever,


    • Thanks Dai
      Sagely words as ever.
      On the subject of the Venus di Milo to lose a work of art is unfortunate but to lose three is careless and the island of Milos has the distinction of being famous for just that. The statue of the Greek God Asclepius has been taken away to the British Museum (not by Lord Elgin this time), Poseidon is in Athens but the most famous of all is the statue of Aphrodite, or the Venus de Milo, which has been taken away to the Louvre in Paris. All over the island archaeologists continue to search for the missing arms but even if they exist it is unlikely that they will ever be found.


  8. Greece is a modern evolved society with about as little of a connection with ancient Greece as anyone else. Can you imagine the Americans asking the world to hand back native american art? Yet Greece is treated as if they’re victims on the level of the jews who had their art plundered by the nazis.

    It’s clear that Elgin made a deal with the Ottoman Empire (during a time of neglect when Greece was letting their masterpieces crumble). I know Greece keeps saying that it doesn’t count because they were under occupation, but you were occupied for over 300 years?! Okay, I give you maybe 50 years to be able to make that claim. Anything after that, you’re not under occupation. That’s your government.


  9. Pingback: Greek A to Ω – B (Beta) is for Βύρων or Byron and the Elgin Marbles | Have Bag, Will Travel

  10. What an excellent discussion. I can see why the Greeks want the marbles back. It is only logical. But the fact that they were preserved by the action of Lord Elgin out to be reason for a beneficial partnership.
    Thank you Andrew. This is one of your very best posts IMO.


  11. It’s all very complex. And in fact one of the ways we are all able to find ourselves head-on with other cultures is when we are exposed to them in museums world-wide. I wouldn’t like all museums simply to become national repositories, But … it’s complicated. You probably noticed that London’s Horniman Museum recently gave back Benin sculptures. Yet this museum is probably where I have learnt most about Africa’s heritage and contributions to world history. Like I said … it’s complicated.


  12. The tale well told with reasoned views


  13. A fair representastion of the arguments of the various parties. What would the Greeks be able to offer us in exchange for the Elgin Marbles? How about 10 euros from every adult who has argued for their return for the last X number of years?


  14. Always a tough one, Andrew. I’ve visited the British Museum and been deeply impressed by the beauty of the Elgin Marbles. On the other hand, I’ve visited the Parthenon and wowed by it’s stately beauty. I am a believer in let the past be in the past. There was a different type of awareness then. I think we move on and do what is best right now. Return the marbles.


  15. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your comments on the new museum and the controversy around restoring culturally significant artifacts.


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